Made it to Santiago, and some of the people along the way.
I finished the French Way of the Camino de Santiago.
I started on a chilly morning in Pamplona in late May and finished on a bakingly hot afternoon in late June. Over 700 kilometers, 28 days, more hours walking than sleeping. My feet hardened, I shivered and sweated, and I got a lot better at washing clothes by hand.
The landscape of northern Spain is absolutely gorgeous. The towering Pyrenees, though I missed the infamous first day and the two lesser cousins that follow. The luxuriant La Rioja with its neat fields of vineyards wrapped over soft hills. The notorious and undervalued Meseta region between the cities of Burgos and Leon, with its own more subtle beauty of pattern and countryside life. Then the verdant reaches of Galicia, Celtic influences echoing on stone streets, susurrations of the Gallego dialect in the greetings of locals that echo with Portuguese, and pausing while elderly women herded cows to pasture on the path. And finally the arrival in Santiago itself.
It is an amazing journey physically, but every priest and pontificator along the way will tell you that the real pilgrimage is internal. The Camino is not just walking a lot, it’s the inward process. That is not true for everyone, some just enjoy a long beautiful walk, but the potential for much more is definitely there.
But that is maybe not blog material, at least not right now.
But more beautiful even than the scenery, and more salient than the inner process, is the community in motion of fellow pilgrims. United by common experiences in different shades, and spanning nationalities from across the globe, the people you can meet on the Camino are arguably the brightest gem in the crown of this experience.
I walked with pilgrims who were Spanish (and Basque), Italian, German, French, Swiss, Danish, Dutch, Belgian, Canadian, Australian, Austrian, Kiwi, South African, Polish, British, Slovenian, Norwegian, Czech, Hungarian, South Korean, Turkish, and even occasionally other Americans. Different ones had different presences, some stand out more than others, but they were all welcome fellow travelers.
Out of the probable 200(?) pilgrims I talked to or met, I can think of one who annoyed the hell out of me, and one who gave me the willies. Other than that they were all positive presences, and even those two were welcome parts of the experience.
There were the Basque youth who taught me an acojonante variety of new Spanish words, a veritable mogollon of Castilian Spanish vocabulary (and no, don’t say either of those words in class or in front of your mother-in-law). The two Swiss matrons who were a reliable and welcome presence of greeting and smiling eyes in nearly every town after about halfway. The Turkish fellow with smiling eyes and a depth of character I could only guess at, but could quickly sense. The spiritual students of Hungary who I unfortunately lost track of early and have been watching out for ever since. The South Korean who closed the second chapter of her life during her pilgrimage and is looking for the third, while in the meantime shining with potent hospitality that turns a park bench into a banquet table. The teddy-bear German who will sprint down a muddy country lane in the mud to keep a friend from going astray. The construction worker from Andalucia with the full back tattoo of raging demons who always wanted to do the camino but couldn’t take the time off…until he won the lottery grand prize…twice.
Or the drill sergeant with his passionate tirades against the Spanish government, who reputedly pulled a knife on an amiable quiet lad one night (yeah, that’s the one that gave me the willies). And his sidekick, who was already your friend when you met him and carried an astonishing quantity of marijuana.
Everyone remembers meeting the bizarre French woman who is taking seven months to walk to Santiago and then back to France with her donkey named Sherpa following along behind her. Or the Italian/Australian butcher who survived throat cancer that left his jaw tight and speech uniquely appealing who has walked several times before, and is currently on his way with his fourth wife; I seem to remember him saying he was 76, but that cannot be true in a man of such phenomenal striding vigor, surely. There was the sweaty Portuguese man with a fin of unruly hair who I met in the middle of baking nowhere who had been walking for a year and a half, and thinks he’s heading to Rome now. Or the mythic figure of the guy who has been walking the various Camino routes since he was 14, approximately 20 times, though figures may vary.
All these characters barely fit in 700 kilometers, and it is with shock that I acknowledge that if I had walked a day or two earlier or later it would have been a whole different cast. This goes on for about a third of the year. During the rest of the time the numbers are less, though I would posit that the density of intensity and peculiarity increases in the off months…